Last Leaves from Dunk Island, by E. J. Banfield

Frank Edward’s Fall

Among the pioneers of a North Queensland goldfield were three mates, whose prospecting experiences had been varied; but they had not hitherto touched anything like the present — the matted vegetation, the close steamy heat, the rank smells of decaying vegetation, the breathless humidity. Others had made some sort of a track to the foothills. Thence upwards the adventurers sought out an acceptable level for a camp.

Rough, hard, incessant work on hastily-prepared food told on them. Each knew and obeyed the lure which charms prospectors to the performance of incredible feats, and said naught. It was all in the game. Time was far too valuable to waste on domestic affairs, for the auriferous gravel was patchy.

One morning a family of blacks appeared — an old man, his gin, two piccaninnies, all shy and nervous, and a youth of sixteen, who, bubbling with confidence and self-assurance, announced that he was “Frank Edward.” They had come to “sit down” with the white men and help them, and incidentally to eat of their tucker. So said Frank Edward with a superior smirk, as he began forthwith to make a heap of firewood on the ledge close to the mildewed tent. The rest of the family huddled together, daring not to look straight at the white men.

Frank Edward told his hosts that he had been at Jerildoun. His hat and trousers, and his speech betrayed the frayed edges of civilization. Being hungry, he demanded flour for a damper. He made one, not such as would appeal even to a hungry prospector, but which to the father and the rest, eaten with tea profusely sugared, made a banquet of ambrosia and nectar. Was it not so written on their otherwise impassive faces? That family was a fixture as long as such delicacies were current.

It was nerve-destroying work high up, as the camp was on a terrace that looked over the broad ribbon of blue to the flounce of surf created by the Great Barrier Reef. Stifling during the dry infrequent clear days; vaporous, with the heat of a Turkish bath, when the mists settled on the roof of leaves. Land leeches took blood tax, transforming themselves from alert, waving threads to incapable blobs. The almost invisible mite that burrowed into the skin made scratching one of the most gratifying pleasures of existence. On the spot for a very definite purpose, the mates did not spare themselves. They scratched the terrace all day, and in retaliation Nature gave them the motive for indulgence in a similar, but purely personal delight at night.

Alec declared that the game was hardly worth the candle. The gold was good enough, but there was not quite enough of it. There was the chance of dropping on something good that might spell fortune. They must not expect a lottery ticket for nothing.

To Douglas’s taste the country was decidedly too damp, but otherwise not too bad. They were paying expenses. There was the chance of a big dividend.

Rube, as hard-headed as he was fisted, was not going to give the show away to the next comer. When the fluming across the big gully was finished they could turn on the water and bring down the wash dirt in big lumps.

Soon a steep face was cut into the slope of the terrace. Water gushed out from the lips of the sluice. The soil melted away, while the gully below ran red with extravagant but superficial wounds. Alec likened their activities to the scrub itch on themselves. They pestered the terrace until it bled and broke into sores which nature decently and promptly swathed with green. Tolerating no unseemly sights, lank, limp, succulent vegetation sprang up as if by magic on the mullock heaps, as did grey fluffy fungus on damp boots and dripping tucker-bags.

The old man and even the gin and piccaninnies had made themselves useful, Frank Edward bossing them, as a side-show, with consummate satisfaction to himself and no little advantage to the mates. Domineering, self-important, as unlike the typical black as a sunbird to a swamp pheasant, he bullied his father, scoffed at his mother, and held the piccaninnies in rigorous subjection.

The mates recognized that he was a personality, and were amused until he began to patronize them. Then they took to watching each other’s demeanour towards him, confident of an outbreak sooner or later.

Within a month, Frank Edward, in his own estimation, was running the camp. He had a say in everything, from the best way to stop a leak in the fluming to the fixing of the day for the trip to the port for tucker. He worked like a tiger himself, saw that the family did its full share, fed it to repletion on damper, and smiled on the mates with the air of an equal.

Splashed with red clay until he looked like a terra-cotta image restored to light after concealment under rubbish, steaming with sweat, fluttering with importance, Frank Edward stood still for a moment beside Alec, shovelling away some mullock. His sharp eyes detected a slug.

“No good to me, ole man. You flurry fool, Alec! You chuck’m away slug.”

Alec glared at the naked boy; few of his chums would have cared to address him as this cheeky savage had. He smiled as the boy handed him a half-ounce nugget; that smile was ominous, if the boy had but known. He was so genuine in all he did and unconscious of offence that Alec smiled another sort of smile.

A few muddy minutes passed, and again the boy found a spec in the mullock heap, and, full of the white man’s ways, shouted: “More better knock off, Alec. Leav’m job to me. You flurry fool. Look!”

“Good boy, Frank Edward,” soothed Alec. “You find plenty that fella alonga mullock.”

“Me fin’m. You lose’m first time. You flurry fool!”

The reiteration of the offensive phrase was almost insufferable. Still, Alec held his peace, and the work went on during the pelting rain, Frank Edward becoming streaky instead of patchy. Thanks in some measure to his unwearying activity and sharpness, the results were satisfactory.

“That boy’s got brain. He’s clever enough for a judge. Never saw a black that was half his match.”

“Yes,” said Douglas. “He’s a wonder. The way he’s got the old man by the throat is a treat. No; he isn’t the stuff for a judge. Let him loose in a Parliament of blacks, and he’d be Premier, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Treasurer, and Chief Executioner in a fortnight, and until a wooden-headed rival silenced him with a waddy.”

Rube, being half asleep, did not say anything much to the point, and Alec took up his parable —

“The fact is, Frank Edward’s too big a name for the boy. It makes him gusty. I’ll have to take him down a peg or two.”

“If you’re going to be rough with him he’ll scoot, and the others with him. Leave him alone. He’s a good hand, and costs next to nothing. Didn’t he pick up more than a couple of months’ keep this morning, and a man ought to stiffer being called a fool when he’s entitled to it.”

“I know all about that,” snapped Alec, “but I can’t stand being called a —— one by a flash black boy. I suppose it’s a matter of complexion. He’ll have to take a hiding. I think I see how it’s going to be done. I’m not going to be what he calls me over it.”

Alec was cook. Damper, salt beef, jam, tea — what more did prospectors who carried all their provisions up from the port want? Cooking was not a strenuous job.

He pannicanned the flour for the blacks on to the bark dish held by Frank Edward, sprinkled in an extra allowance of salt, and made a show of adding soda and acid.

While the damper cooked in its bed of ashes the expectant family sat watching with avaricious eyes. Occasionally the old man flicked trifling embers on to it, for he was understudying. Frank Edward flared and frankly referred to his father as “a flurry ole fool,” and the old man fancied the term was not one of endearment. He sat back humiliated, but as eager for the dainty as a half-starved calf for its mother’s milk.

Hooked out from the fire, the acme of present hopes was as flat as a board, sodden, sticky, blistered on the outside, and studded with half buried cinders. Frank Edward gazed at it in dismay. Hitherto he had achieved unvarying success.

Anticipatory and now ravenous, the old man tasted and spat. Salt does not come to blacks naturally. The sharp foreign flavour excited suspicion of poison. The longed-for food was less palatable than the leathery mess made from the “koi-ie” nut. There it was, to be picked at and sampled at all points, and to be proved fearsome throughout.

The mates listened to the rumbles of disappointment, and to the confident explanations of Frank Edward, who bustled up to them.

“What for you mak’m flour belonga me no good. You flurry fool, Alec. Damper him no good. Ole man he mak’m row alonga me.”

“Clear out!” shouted Alec. “Suppose you spoil’m damper that way, me no give flour.”

“Me mak’m all asame. You bin mak’m flour no good. You flurry fool!”

Alec rose, gripping a pick handle.

Frank Edward side-stepped and retreated.

All day the family sat in camp, as sad and sodden as the damper, hungry yet unwilling to turn out and forage. Frank Edward’s zeal was tempered by sulkiness. He had eaten but little. Detestable proof of failure in the very highest art was torturing him, and the shrill scorn of his suffering kin poured contempt on his pride and distracted him from thinking out a solution of the humiliating mystery.

Next morning Alec dealt out the flour unsparingly, omitting none of the prescribed ingredients. The damper rose as a damper of high principles should, and being ceremoniously dusted by Frank Edward with his fragmentary hat, was broken with boastful display.

Smiles lit up the gloomy scene. Was ever food sweeter and more acceptable? Alec had been profuse. All were replete. The waistless piccaninnies strutted and frolicked, and slept in token of content.

It was a merry camp up on the misty ridge, for diplomatic Alec played upon Frank Edward’s pride and conceit until the youth’s fussiness and insolencies became comical. His scheme was working faster than he had anticipated.

He indulged in another of his curious smiles when Frank Edward presented the bark dish for the customary flour, and ostentatiously appeared to add the ingredients to complete the ration, which was borne off triumphantly. The dutiful family watched the preparations, while the boy savagely scolded whomsoever presented an interfering finger.

He patted the dough, dusted dry flour on it, slid it off his hands on to the ashes, covered it and sat back bloated with vainglory. Under his patronage the old man was permitted to poke cinders round it; but the old woman and the piccaninnies, fascinated though they were, had been schooled to look in another direction. It was big; it was going to be great.

When it was proclaimed to be cooked Frank Edward buffeted the ashes, blew upon it, and sat down.

Tough, leathery, sodden, and of alarming taste, the damper acted like magic. The old man stood up. For once his slow mind was stimulated to fury. Recalling the bullying of yesterday, he concluded that the repulsive and probably poisonous thing was the deliberate and intentional consolidation of the ridicule of his son.

Touched in his most susceptible quarter, he broke it over the boy’s head. The boy sat down, and before he could rise the old man was belabouring him with the fire-hardened cane with which he had been permitted to caress the ruined food.

Although officious, the boy was not a fighter. In his day the old man had been, and two uneatable dampers and the continual jeers roused the spirit of his prime. The piccaninnies took cover in the jungle. The gin shrieked, and true to motherhood, sought to shield, with her lean body, her offspring from the father’s wrath. Hitting when and where he could, the writhing, struggling forms, the old man’s war-cry, “Damper!” might have been mistaken for a curse — and peradventure Frank Edward would have better enjoyed the language unaccompanied.

Not until the boy had been chastened in spirit, as well as in body, did the mates intervene.

Subdued and stifled with mystery, he sat whimpering, while Alec, to commemorate peace, presented the material for another damper, which compounded and cooked under strict scrutiny of the old man, proved a masterpiece.

Then it was the old man who swaggered. He sat back and surveyed the scene. But that niggard Nature had scanted him in such respect he might have tilted his chin. A dominant feature stood to him — not his nose, for that, broadening and flattening, disappeared, leaving but dilated and cavernous nostrils. His bloodshot eyes bulged and brightened, while his snort, though like that of an apprehensive goat, proclaimed his triumph — that he was a man in his own right, a master in his own domain, a lord of creation. No more would he live under the domination of his son. He had resumed filched rights, and his flashing eyes asserted determination to maintain them.

The silence of the jungle bore witness that he alone was head of the family.

Frank Edward quailed.

Alec remarked casually next morning, as the meek boy hopped about under his father’s orders:

“You fellows can’t say that I put the acid on him, but it’s there all right.”

“No; but he’ll be off the first chance,” asserted Rube.

“Not he. He’ll not forsake damper, and he’s too frightened of the old man. He’s the best of this crowd. I don’t know,” continued Alec, musingly, “that I’d rather be called a ‘flurry fool’ by a boy of that stamp than have him say, ‘Beg, pardin, boss.’ That’s the beginning of servility. It was low to pay him out for being smart. What do you say if we send him to school? He’s got the brains.”

Douglas shouted dissent. “I’ll be no party to that. He’s a fine boy. Are you for spoiling him?”

“Spoil him!” jeered Alec. “My mean dodgery and the old man’s poker! Wait till he sees through the trick. He’ll spoil us!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32